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Asian Art Museum exhibits rare maps showcasing early encounters between China and the West
A Complete Map of the World , (detail) 1674, by Ferdinand Verbiest (Flemish, 1623–1688). China; Beijing. Ink on paper. Geography and Map Division, Librar y of Congress, Washington D.C. , G3200 1674.V4.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- This spring, the Asian Art Museum brings together for the first time two extremely rare 400-year-old maps that are the product of early interactions between European and Chinese scholars. In the late sixteenth century, Jesuit missionaries traveled to China, where they learned about Chinese culture and shared scientific knowledge with their hosts. China at the Center presents two maps that were the result of this cross-cultural exchange: Matteo Ricci’s 1602 A Complete Map of the Ten Thousand Countries of the World and Ferdinand Verbiest’s 1674 A Complete Map of the World. These massive woodblock-printed maps are physical representations of the joint scholarship of two very different cultures and show the world as it was perceived roughly four centuries ago. A highlight of the Asian’s 50th anniversary exhibition series, China at the Center is on view from March 4 through May 8, 2016, in the museum’s Lee Gallery. The exhibition is co-curated Natasha Reichle, associate curator of Southeast Asian art, Asian Art Museum, and M. Antoni J. Ucerler, S.J., director, Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History, University of San Francisco.

To enhance visitors’ interpretive experience, the museum is partnering with Ideum, a pioneer in the use of computer-based multi-touch and multi-user interactive experiences, to create two vibrant 55-inch interactive displays that provide the chance to virtually “touch” the maps and access image details as well as English translations of the Chinese text. From these maps and interpretive displays, visitors can discover the world as it was perceived by Europeans and Chinese in the 17th-century and witness the nascent beginnings of the collaboration between East and West.

“China at the Center exemplifies our vision to spark connections across cultures and through time,” says Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum. “These intricately crafted maps represent the beginning of a history of collaboration between China and the West that continues to this day.”

While their cartography was drawn mostly from European sources, the Ricci and Verbiest maps differ from European maps of the same period in their placement of the Americas to the right and Eurasia and Africa to the left, with China and the Pacific Ocean positioned near the center. The Chinese tradition of densely annotating maps is evident — their surfaces are covered with text, in some places supplying place names and in others providing a remarkable depth of information about the geography of the world and the customs of the people within the regions. These maps identify the longest river in Africa, the peninsula of Florida, the feathered garb of Amazonian tribes, as well as descriptions and opinions on the products of certain regions such as Madeira, which was noted to make excellent wine. These maps are also a testament to the power of imagination, with fanciful descriptions of some of the world’s people, flora and fauna, as well as giants, unicorns, mermaids and other mythical creatures referenced in legends from around the world.

Matteo Ricci: A Complete Map of the Ten Thousand Countries of the World Dated 1602, the first of the two maps on display was made by Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) in collaboration with Chinese scholars. Ricci, one of the most influential Jesuit priests in China, was the first Westerner allowed entry into the Forbidden City. Roughly 5 feet by 12 feet, the Ricci map was printed on paper using intricately carved wood blocks. It is the first Chinese map to show the Americas, and the oldest extant map to incorporate both Eastern and Western cartography. The map was made at the court of the Wanli emperor of the Ming dynasty and was designed to integrate Jesuit understanding of science and cartography as well as Chinese knowledge of Asia. The resulting conception of the world, while based on a European model, reflects Chinese familiarity with the geography of Asia. It also presents ethnographies gathered (and imagined) from all parts of the globe. The Ricci map is one of only six complete copies in existence and the only copy in the U.S. The map is owned by the James Ford Bell Trust, held at the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota, and has been loaned to the Asian Art Museum.

“It was such a unique opportunity to be able to acquire one of the most significant cartographical documents ever produced," said Dr. Ford Bell, former president of the American Alliance of Museums and Honorary Director of the James Ford Bell Library. "The map brings together the best of western science, mathematics and geography to show China, the western hemisphere and five continents in their relative positions. It represents a momentous first meeting of East and West.”

Ferdinand Verbiest: A Complete Map of the World
The colossal 1674 map of Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–1688) was made for the Qing emperor Kangxi and included significant information about the Americas, as well as images and descriptions of strange and exotic animals of the world. The text on the map near Peru, for example, details the region’s products and natural resources, and also describes a bird (a rhea) that can outrun a horse and whose eggs can serve as a cup. The map also illustrates animals from North America like the turkey, the beaver from Europe, and the chameleon from Africa, which would have been strikingly unusual to many Chinese. The Verbiest map, on loan from the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, has never before been exhibited.

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